The 2019 Louisiana legislative session is over, which means we are already thinking about election season this fall. We were faced with strong opposition at the Capitol this year, but we came out on top thanks to endless hours of work from VOTE members, staff, and a handful of supportive legislators. This fall, we have a huge opportunity to elect leaders who truly represent us--which will mean less opposition to our legislative efforts in the future. ALL 144 State Representatives and Senators, as well as the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will be up for re-election on October 12. When we vote for more leaders like the ones who supported our bills this year, we protect and then advance the progress we've made. Here are the top 10 wins of this legislative session, and the lessons we learned from each. Every win moves us closer to the future we deserve, including a successful election this fall.
1. We mobilized by the hundreds:
This session, we proved that we can mobilize quickly in response to an opportunity. We learned this first one Friday in May, when we got word that seven of our key bills were being heard in House committees the following Monday. VOTE’s team activated our people across the state. We mobilized more than 100 members to fill every hearing room beyond capacity and testify in front of legislators for the first time. Just a few days later VOTE co-hosted a successful Lobby Day with Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, which brought hundreds of people to the Capitol to learn about the legislative process, meet their representatives, and fight for our bills.
Lesson: When we show up together as a network of directly impacted people, we can change the law. This lesson will be important during election season this fall, when we’ll be mobilizing our base to elect leaders who listen to our experiences and support criminal justice reform.
2. We advanced the conversation about fair juries:
A year after our historic campaign to end non-unanimous juries, it was nothing short of poetic to advocate for all people to have the right to serve on a jury. Currently, anyone with a felony conviction is excluded from this civic duty for life.
We made our case with the excellent sponsorship of Rep. Ted James, himself a former criminal defense attorney. Although the bill didn’t pass, it served as a catalyst for a broader discussion. Do our punishments ever end? Are there second chances? When a natural disaster hits Louisiana, all people come together to fulfill their obligations as friends and neighbors. In those times, nobody needs to complete a background check prior to getting involved. The same should apply for other aspects of community life. We must eliminate the segregation policies that bar us from participating in society once we come home.
In the wake of this bill, Louisiana passed a study resolution that will allow the Vera Institute for Justice to create an educational report on the state of juries in Louisiana. This is a huge step forward, and will provide ample information to present our case in the 2020 session.
Lesson: We may not have all of our rights back yet, but this fall we can vote people into office who agree that having a criminal record shouldn’t stop people from engaging in all civic responsibilities, including jury service.
3. We gained more transparency in sentencing:
We believe that everyone facing a charge should be informed of all of the consequences of pleading guilty, including the impact on housing, employment, and voting rights. From this belief, we passed a law requiring defense attorneys to communicate all plea offers to people facing charges.
We also won the opportunity to do a study on what lawyers currently communicate to their clients as part of plea deals, and to provide a recommendation to the Legislature. This is the first time a study of this magnitude has fallen upon FIP, and provides us with the force of law when we conduct our inquiries of district attorneys, court clerks, and others.
Lesson: We expect transparency, not just from courts during sentencing, but also from our politicians in general. When we vote this fall, we will elect leaders who have a track record of honesty, who are committed to telling us the full truth.
4. We lessened the wait time on professional licensing for FIP:
In recent years, proposals regarding professional licensing for formerly incarcerated people have been mixed. On one side are people who genuinely want to see hard workers have a chance to support themselves through their training and talents. On the other are people whose misguided fears lead them to support waiting periods before FIP can participate in the economy.
This year’s reform made several important changes to current law. Licensing boards are now only allowed to discriminate if a crime is violent, sexual, or directly related to the occupation. If the crime is directly related, they can only discriminate for five years. This is a significant step forward in a much longer journey towards fair reentry.
Lesson: Economic opportunity is key to successful reentry, and when we vote this fall, we will vote for people who agree.
5. We protected formerly incarcerated restaurant workers:
Another important win this year was making sure FIP still have access to working in restaurants, which are one of the most reliable places of employment for people with records. A certain bill would have created a new set of barriers for FIP to get over, but VOTE worked with the bill sponsor and their specialist to get this bill pulled from the pipeline.
Lesson: It’s not just what we fight for that matters; it is also what we fight against. We expect our elected officials to fight for employment rights for all FIP, and know that this fall we can vote for leaders who will do just that.
6. We started an honest conversation about the death penalty:
The people of Louisiana are moving towards a genuine debate about the death penalty. This year, Rep. Landry got the bill to eliminate the death penalty out of committee and onto the House Floor, which is a huge step in the right direction. The death penalty debate furthered a very serious conversation about punishment--from the details of cost to the to the issues of morality.
Lesson: Public dialogue matters. Though the bill to abolish the death penalty did not pass this session, we intend to elect leaders who will not shy away from this topic and other important conversations like it, and who share our values.
7. We eliminated a strike:
We know that the ‘three strikes’ law is overly punitive, and has led to massive group of people who are incarcerated on long-term sentences for minor offenses. This year, Louisiana had a chance to amend this law, thereby greatly reducing its negative impact.
What ultimately passed was less robust than we originally hoped, but it is still progress. The change only applies to people who: 1) are given a “first offender pardon,” which means the sentences is carried out as a probation, and then 2) pay to have that record cleared (i.e. expunged)--which can cost upwards of $1,000. Not only are these expungements costly, and therefore inaccessible to the vast majority of formerly incarcerated people, but the person using them has to wait a minimum of six months before they can even start the process. Before we passed this amendment, the first offense would still count as a first strike, even if expunged. Now, the “first offender pardon” will not count as a strike. While this is good news, it will realistically only apply to a small group of people, as this kind of pardon is rare, and expungement is expensive.
Lesson: Change is incremental, and there’s always more work to do. Though the version of the ‘three strikes’ bill that passed did not go far enough, it is a step in the right direction. In 2020, we will make the first offender pardon automatic for all. We will get there by electing leaders who don’t support overly-punitive sentences and will help us eliminate them altogether.
.8. We made unlikely allies:
During a hearing on restoring voting rights to FIP, Senator Dan Claitor, himself a former prosecutor, said “I’m doing this for Checo, and those people in the blue shirts.” He was referring to our Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy, who is a steady presence at the Capitol despite being on parole for the rest of his life. Further, Representatives Pylant and Hill provided personal stories about people they knew impacted by overly harsh punishments. This testimony shows us that more legislators like Claitor joined our side this year.
Lesson: The shift from a punitive system to a transformational system will depend on converting hearts and minds, even if it is one legislator at a time. This fall, we will vote for officials who already align with our visions, or who are at the very least willing to actively listen to us.
9. We protected our wins:
Last year, Act 636 passed the legislature and restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans on probation and parole. This year, Rep. Coussan tried to roll back our victory. His bill went after the lowest of low-hanging fruits--taking away voting rights for people who are on parole or probation for sex crimes involving minors.
We at VOTE know that reform must happen for all of us or none. In other words, we fight for every single formerly incarcerated person, no matter their conviction. We showed up by the hundreds for that bill hearing, and our message of “no rollbacks” was heard. We provided testimonies and more than 100 red cards in opposition. In the end, the sponsor pulled his bill from the floor. It was a huge win for VOTE and our newly eligible voters.
Lesson: Our right to vote is our voice. Act 636 gave us our right to vote back, but that doesn’t mean anything unless we use it. This fall, we have the opportunity to use our voice and elect leaders who will continue to uplift our victories, rather than roll back our progress.
10. We fought for accessible voter registration:
Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. We anticipated some problems with implementation, namely getting everyone who is now eligible successfully registered. This session, we tried to put in a Voter Registration Simplification Act to smooth out the registration process for FIP using the Secretary of State’s offices, staff and protocols. The bill ultimately failed, but we’re ready to take registration into our own hands.
Lesson: We’re always willing to fight one day longer than the other.
VOTE is as determined as ever to get the 40,000 newly eligible voters registered in time for the fall elections--even if we don’t have full support from the Secretary of State and the Department of Corrections. From June 30 to July 3, we’ll be on a voter registration tour with Black Voters Matter. We’ll be stopping in: Baton Rouge (June 30), Lafayette (July 1), Shreveport (July 2), New Orleans (July 3), and some places in between! Come out and get registered, and celebrate with other newly eligible voters! RSVP using the links above.
Like every year since the movement to end mass incarceration has begun, we’ve seen ups and downs. But with each win and each setback, we learn a lesson, as seen above. The biggest one of all? We can, and will, turn the criminal legal system into a truly transformative justice system over time. We are proud of the progress we have made this session, and are excited to build the future we know is possible by electing leaders who will listen to our stories and help us fight for our rights this fall.
What if we were given an opportunity.
What if we could change things around inside of our community.
What if we stood for unity.
What if we made a difference, and encouraged another person to make better decisions.
What if you had the opportunity to write out your life.
What if a blind person was able to regain their sight.
What if somehow, someway we found a cure for aids.
What if H1N1 put an end to your days.
What if Hurricane Katrina hit Beverly Hills.
What if the water killed thousands in the BP oil spill.
What if houses in Haiti were sturdy and firm.
What if Obama was assassinated before completing his second term.
What if the Wikileaks founder withheld the truth.
What if America, the beautiful, returned all of her troops.
What if public school teachers were properly paid.
What if the wrongfully convicted were released from the cage.
What if innocent people got back all of those years.
What if mothers never suffered, and had to shed tears.
What if tomorrow never came.
What if it always rained.
What if you found a way to eliminate all of the pain.
What if you came to the conclusion that life was only just an illusion, and then drew into seclusion.
What if we never failed, just lived happily.
What if pain and stress were not a part of this reality.
What if your thought process brought success.
What if there weren't kids that had to starve to death.
What if oppression never existed--would the statistics inside the criminal system then become fictitious?
What if I never rose up off that hospital bed.
What if my little brother wasn't buried and dead.
What if, I could bring him back, dig him up and blow breath in his lungs so he could reconnect with his two sons.
What if, air pollution, global warming and massive atrocities put an end to this modern day society.
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Brandon is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Thursday is the last day of the 2019 legislative session. We have had many ups and downs, big wins, and small setbacks. Most of all, we have been reminded over and over again that long-term change is a slow process. With patience and perseverance, VOTE staff and members have been at the State Capitol daily for the past two months, fighting for the changes that will build the just future our community demands and deserves.
At VOTE, we know that the people closest to the criminal justice system--those who have experienced all of its injustice--will be the ones to ensure lasting change. House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 109 is a chance for VOTE prove that principle to the legislature. HCR 109 allows VOTE to conduct a study about the level of awareness people facing charges have had regarding the consequences that come with taking a plea deal. We know from experience that many people are not made aware of the true impact of pleading guilty to a conviction, including how having a criminal record will affect their access to housing, voting, and employment for the rest of their lives. As of today, the bill has passed the House and the Senate and is ready to be signed by the Governor. Now VOTE and our partners have the opportunity to collect testimonies from our community and educate the legislature on the issues that directly impact us. We will come back to the 2020 legislative session with the report in hand, ready to continue the fight.
HCR 109 builds off of another bill that we introduced this session--HB 351--which ensures that defense attorneys will communicate all plea offers from the District Attorney to their clients. The bill also passed both chambers and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. This is a step in the right direction, though there's more room for growth.
Like HB 351, HB 518--which in its original form would have removed nonviolent offenses from the habitual offender, or ‘three strikes’ law, and drastically reduce its harmful impact--has been weakened by amendments. The habitual offender law allows judges to lengthen sentences for people who have been convicted of more than one crime, even if their first and second crimes were nonviolent and minor in nature. This type of unnecessarily harsh sentencing is the primary reason that our jails and prisons are overcrowded with people who have nonviolent convictions. Now (after the amendments), HB 518 will only apply to people who choose probation for their first offense and who went through the burdensome process of getting their record sealed after they served the probation. This choice, usually known as ‘deferred probation’ only applies to certain first-time offenses and is not a common sentence. On top of that, getting a record sealed is not automatic and very few people go through with the process--often deterred by the $1,000 price tag.* HB 518 passed the House and is being heard on the Senate Floor TOMORROW (click here to tell your legislators to vote YES on it). If it passes, this bill will still be a small win for VOTE, and we will have more work to do next legislative session to continue chipping away at the overly-punitive habitual offender law.
HCR 109, HB 315, and HB 518 do not go far enough, but they are undoubtedly moving us in the right direction. Unfortunately, this session has also seen some policy decisions that roll back on our progress. Two crucial criminal justice reform bills were defeated in the House this year--HB 509 and HB 59. HB 59 tried to reform penalties for marijuana possession and HB 509 sought to legalize the drug for recreational use. These bills are important because we know that the War on Drugs has been ineffective at best, and violently disrupted poor communities of color at worst. Last year, marijuana possession alone accounted for 13,000 arrests in Louisiana, and it is no surprise that those arrested were disproportionately Black. These marijuana bills were simply trying to amend the lowest hanging fruit by addressing the arrests that have been proven unnecessary and detrimental to justice.
It is now widely accepted across political lines that overly-punitive sentencing practices such as those mentioned above are a leading cause of mass incarceration in our state and throughout the nation. That means it’s time to make bigger strides in reversing these harmful policies. We demand better from our legislators, and are ready to fight one day longer than our opponents until justice is achieved.
*If you or someone you know has a record that you want sealed, the Justice and Accountability Center and Orleans Public Defenders’ office host a free expungement clinic every fourth Wednesday of the month from 2-5pm at 2601 Tulane Ave. Find more information here.